On July 3, dancers in multiple locations and multiple countries will be taking time to use movement to express gratitude and connection through movement and orientation in space. jill sigman/thinkdance will be hosting a live outdoor event in Riverside Park in New York City simultaneously with this online workshop.
No experience in improvisational dance is needed to participate. The whole event is designed for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people, and participants are encouraged to unmute, ask questions, and self-describe throughout the event.
Infinite gratitude for our collective wisdom, our collective knowledge!
Krishna Washburn (above) is a blind dancer in New York City who teaches a free online ballet class at Dark Room Balletfor adults who are visually impaired. Her students come from around the world. They can’t see her, but they rely on her verbal descriptions of exercises and how to move their body into different shapes. Instead of a mirror, students use a strip of tape on the floor to orient them in space. Krishna is a professional dancer who has performed with many companies. She holds a Master’s of Education from Hunter College and a special certification through the American College of Sports Medicine. No experience is necessary for her introductory class, which runs every Monday night. We spoke about her non-visual style of instruction which is grounded in a deep understanding of the body.
BLOOM: What is dark room ballet?
Krishna Washburn: The concept is a system of teaching ballet that does not privilege sight. It’s based on several different techniques that I’ve absorbed over the years. I was taught ballet through the Royal Academy of Dance, so that is the ballet style we use. I don’t give my students a mirror as a tool. Instead, I give them a strip of tape on the floor, so we have to learn with a different mindset but with the same, shared vocabulary that all ballet dancers use. It’s very anatomy-based. I take a lot of inspiration from Feldenkrais techniques about coming to understand how your anatomy interacts internally, and from the great tradition of Japanese Butoh, which is also a dance style that is non-visual and very much about knowing how your nervous system works.
I have a Monday night group class at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and I have students who come from every part of the world and every time zone. My students mean so much to me. Monday class is open level so it’s suitable for people with an introductory level understanding of ballet positions. We typically do six exercises, including centre, and I use very fun music. I speak and describe continuously through the music. Some of my students have some sight, but most of my students don’t see me at all. The first hour is focusing on being in your body and ballet technique. The last half hour is the most important part, because it’s question and answer time. Students can ask me to explain something we did in more detail so they’re clear on it. It’s also a time for the blind and visually impaired community to get to know and support each other in their dance journey.
BLOOM: Why do you call it dark room?
Krishna Washburn: For many reasons. A dark room in photography is where images develop, so the dark room is also a theoretical place where you as an artist take time to develop and allow yourself to change chemically.
BLOOM: I love that analogy. How is blind dancing different from sighted dancing? I read this on your website in a piece called Breaking down stereotypes about blind dancers: Some people, even other disabled people, think that the aesthetic of the blind dancer is basically what a sighted dancer would do, just not as good. This is a mistake that people make because of ableism. A highly skilled blind dancer is absolutely not lesser than a highly skilled sighted dancer, but is, indeed, different.
Krishna Washburn: That essay is about breaking down stereotypes about blind dancers and taking the fear away from talking about ableism. When we talk about the difference between how a sighted and blind dancer moves, it’s really very different, because we need to think about our bodies and our movement choices very differently. We have to use our ears, use our feet, use our sense of internal orientation, and we need a much greater awareness of our own anatomy.
The study tool of the sighted dancer is the mirror. You watch your teacher in the mirror and copy your teacher. The blind dancer can’t do that. The blind dancer has to understand the floor, that is our tool. We use a tape strip. The orientation tape on the floor is a very old tradition. It’s how blind teachers teach blind students how to keep their spot as they’re studying, how to keep their sensitivity in their feet, how to understand where they are, and how to feel confident where they are. I need to understand where all of my bones are in my body. Maybe a sighted dancer doesn’t have to do that. I need to know exactly how much space I have before I begin a choreography. A sighted dancer doesn’t have to think twice about that. That doesn’t mean that the quality of my artistry is in any way secondary to what a sighted dancer does. I’m not compensating. I’m using technique that is appropriate to me. I’m a master of my art in the same way sighted dancers are a master of theirs.
I feel there’s a very unhealthy narrative we teach to kids that you have a disability so you’re going to have to overcome that disability and compensate in order to achieve what you want to achieve. That’s a terrible thing we teach our kids. It doesn’t reflect reality. The reality is we live in an ableist world. I’ve mentored younger, pre-professional dancers who’ve told me ‘I thought I needed to compensate or work harder or do something to overcome.’ We need to be frank. There is a problem in our culture called ableism. People think what you do is less valuable and less important than what non-disabled people do. And that isn’t true. When people discriminate against you and use stereotypes about your disability, instead of interacting with you as a unique person, we need to point it out, or get an older person to help.
BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge of doing your class online?
Krishna Washburn: The hardest part is making sure my technology is not going to break, because that has actually happened. The compressor in my extremely expensive microphone did break and we had to do old school and use the internal microphone in my laptop. But I got a new one right away. So you have to make sure the technology is your friend.
I love teaching online because I don’t have the commute. I didn’t even realize this but prior to quarantine, I spent an easy four hours a day in the subway in New York City, getting to studios. I have so much more time now and I work so much harder. I’m doing many private classes as well as group classes, and I’m rehearsing in arts projects and creating art on my own.
BLOOM: What’s the great joy of your online class?
Krishna Washburn: There’s so much joy. Having conversations with my students in Q and A time, when you can hear in their voice that something clicks. Ballet is fundamentally a dance form that prioritizes balance. You stabilize one part of your body so you can have freedom elsewhere. Most of the time you stabilize your torso, so your arms and legs can move freely. Once that clicks, and the student says I know how to find the back of my heels, to transfer my weight from foot to foot and keep my torso stable so my legs can move as I want, and I can feel balanced and not feel scared, then every movement from then on is like the first domino falling on the floor and the rest fall into place.
BLOOM: What do people, especially beginners, say they get out of the class?
Krishna Washburn: A lot of blind folks have been deprived of information about their own bodies because somebody decided that because they’re blind or visually impaired, they don’t need to know about their own skeleton, about their own nervous system, and about the names of the parts of their body. I’ve had conversations with adaptive physical education teachers who work with young people, and I always encourage them not only to always use their voice and describe movements, but to explicitly teach anatomy, even to little kids. A lot of blind dance beginners who are adults need this education, and there aren’t people offering it to adults.
If I’m starting with someone who has been prevented from knowing the basic facts about their body and their body’s capability, I’m giving them the opportunity to truly take ownership of their body and to know what it is and what it does and what it can do, and to not feel anxious about movement. I want them to feel happiness in movement and to feel freedom in movement and to not feel the weight of judgment of sighted people watching.
BLOOM: How did you get interested in dance?
Krishna Washburn: I started out as a sighted person who was scouted by the Royal Academy of Dance when I was three. I went through the entire curriculum and it wasn’t until I was a young adult in a pre-professional stage of my training that I experienced vision loss. All of my paid work has been as a blind performer.
BLOOM: I know you perform with a number of dance companies. What pulls you to teaching?
Krishna Washburn: I was born to be a teacher. That’s always mattered to me. And I don’t want what I’ve learned in life as a dancer to die with me. I want to grow this as a field and gain legitimacy and not become a separate group that no one has heard of. If you’re American, it’s very normal for you to have dance lessons as a kid. Unless you’re disabled. I would like dance to be a normal part of growing up, whether you’re disabled or not. Every child should have a chance to learn about the body and take time to understand these are how my bones feel together, and I can feel the nerves in my fingers and feet, I know they’re there. It’s not theoretical stuff from science class, it’s real.
BLOOM: What is the best way for someone to contact you if they’d like to consider joining your Monday class?
Krishna Washburn: Just e-mail me at info @ darkroomballet.com.
The pandemic cut off George Stern from his go-to physical activities. No more jiujitsu. Goodbye running group.
Stern, who is deafblind, needed something safe and accessible that could keep him healthy. He stumbled upon a post in a social media group where people with disabilities talk about fitness and discovered Dark Room Ballet, a virtual class run out of a New York City apartment and designed for people with impaired vision.
Stern was inspired by Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, to sign up for private lessons.
“Uppermost in my head as I went into this was the memory of an NPR feature on … Copeland, and her words to the effect that ballet was for all body types, not just tall, skinny ones,” Stern said.
And not just sighted ones.
Dark Room Ballet founder and instructor Krishna Washburn, a blind dancer based in New York, taught Stern that people with disabilities can also practice ballet. And during the pandemic, offering the classes virtually made her lessons accessible in a way they weren’t before.
With two laptops, a microphone and a chair used as a ballet barre, Washburn guides students through the technique of a highly visual art form using detailed descriptions of how they should move their bodies. She teaches virtually on Zoom from her Hamilton Heights apartment every Monday evening.
Sighted ballet dancers scrutinize their movements in large mirrors until they perfect a sequence, but perfection isn’t what matters in Washburn’s classes.
She believes it’s immaterial to talk about how dancers should look. Instead, she explains how her students’ bodies should feel in order to build their confidence to dance.
Washburn launched Dark Room Ballet in April, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her teaching philosophy works well, she says, in an environment where it isn’t safe to be close to other people.
“Pretty much every person who I teach all have a history of being touched in unwanted ways … a lot of the available [dance] curriculums are predominantly about that because they assume people cannot think and interpret for themselves,” Washburn said. “Blind people really learn by having a conversation and through repeated experimentation.”
Through this experimentation, Washburn aims to introduce her students to new ways of movement and self-expression. One student, Len Burns, had practiced jiujitsu and yoga, but never took a ballet class before the pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns in March.
A blind man in his 60s, Burns believed he did not “quite fit the stereotype of a beginning ballet student,” but a friend encouraged him to give Washburn’s class a try.
“Little could I have known on that quiet Sunday afternoon that I had begun a journey that has already transformed me in ways I could never have imagined,” Burns said.
Washburn’s classes also thrived during the pandemic, allowing people from around the globe to join. Burns practices in the central coast area of California. Washburn said another student wakes up at 5 a.m. just to dance with Dark Room Ballet.
Washburn believes she’s the only person teaching the way she does. Some companies have offered special classes or programs for visually impaired dancers, and the Fernanda Bianchini Ballet Association in Brazil says on its website that it is the only dance school and company in the world made up entirely of visually impaired people.
Washburn considers herself a “ballet folk artist” because she is largely self-taught, but she takes dance classes every day and follows the guidance of her blind dance mentor, Mana Hashimoto.
Hashimoto studied dance at the New England Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She performed dance around the world, including at the world-renowned dance space Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. In 2009, Hashimoto founded Dance Without Sight, a workshop series that teaches movement through touch, sound and smell.https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/pnjm/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html
Washburn performed with several companies, including Infinity Dance Theater in New York City, where she climbed the ranks to principal dancer. Along with her extensive dance background, Washburn holds a master’s degree in education and certification from the Indiana-based American College of Sports Medicine.
Still, Washburn said ableism in the dance industry is “almost inexplicable,” and it held her back as a teacher and performer.
She’s been barred from classes with sighted dancers by instructors who fear she could injure herself or others. People have underestimated her intellect, and a lot of work placed Washburn in “unsafe and disrespectful environments,” but she took it anyway because she thought she wouldn’t land any other jobs.
To help break down barriers for visually impaired dancers, Washburn offers her group class and private lessons for free.
“My true mission is to fight against educational denial,” Washburn said. “If someone wants to learn something from me, I never, ever say no, because they deserve to learn.”
Washburn delves deeper than typical ballet technique instruction by explaining skeletal awareness and biomechanics. She coaches dancers to tune in to their bodies and feel how each muscle moves in order to place them in a prescribed form.
On the first day of class, Washburn instructs her students to place a line of tape on the ground and get used to the feeling of it. That helps dancers feel “confident and oriented in their dance space,” Washburn said. People move more freely about their space knowing there’s a home base to return to.
Stern said his private lessons with Washburn provided insight into his identity as well as his physical body.
“Ballet provided a welcome chance to reconnect with and recommit to my body, and in a not stereotypically ‘manly’ way that appealed to my queer identity,” Stern said.
He was drawn to Dark Room Ballet because it suited every type of body. Stern could learn the moves as a 30-year-old who was deaf and blind. So could Burns, who is 30 years his senior.
Dark Room Ballet welcomes people with any amount of dance experience and all abilities, though most people who attend have some visual impairment. Although virtual classes started during the pandemic, Washburn said she plans to continue teaching the class for the rest of her life.
“The person I get to be today, I get to be a teacher,” Washburn said. “I get to work only with people that I respect and I get to be treated with respect. But this is a recent development, and I had to wait for the world to fall apart for it to happen.”